The essential reform our Elected Presidency needs

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The last presidential election was an unfortunate spectacle for a reason that many people either do not realize, or have forgotten about. The eventual victor, Mr Tony Tan clinched the presidency with 35.2% of the vote, defeating Mr Tan Cheng Bock, who received 34.85% of the vote, by a very narrow 0.35%. In third place was Mr Tan Jee Say, who received 25.04% of the vote.

2100PE results.PNG
Source: Wikipedia

The problem is clear – we have an electoral system that allows a candidate to win without a simple majority of the vote (i.e. > 50%). It is not incorrect to say that for 64.8% of voters in the 2011 elections, Mr Tony Tan was not their top choice for President; yet he won. This happened because we adopt what is called the “first past the post” system for our Presidential elections.

If we believe in representative government, then we must ensure that our electoral system leads to results that represent the people’s wishes as far as possible. I argue that the first past the post system can lead to results that do not accurately represent the will of the electorate. Let me use an example to demonstrate this. Imagine 10 of us are thinking of a place to have dinner, and we need to select one place to dine at. When we all write down our first choices, we may get something like this:

Top choice of place to eat

Number of people

KFC

4

McDonalds

3

Burger King

2

MOS Burger

1

 

Let’s assume KFC does not serve burgers, and that the other places do not serve fried chicken. Would our group of friends choose to eat at KFC? This is unlikely, since it is quite clear that 6 out of 10 people are in the mood for a burger of some sort, while only 4 are craving fried chicken. Selecting KFC is arguably not the best representation of the overall wishes of our group of friends. What is likely to happen in real life is that, seeing the results of the vote, the burger-craving people will discuss and settle together on a single burger place in order to outnumber their KFC-craving friends.

However, based on the first past the post system, we will end up eating at KFC, even though KFC won only 4 out of 10 votes, and although more people would rather have a burger than eat fried chicken, and even if the KFC-craving people would have been okay with a burger place as a second-choice. Why this odd result? This is because this system does not ask those who didn’t get their first choice what their second choice would have been. It merely considers top choices, and that is the end of the matter.

This is a simple voting system – it is easy to understand and easy to apply. However, as seen from our dining example, it does not necessarily achieve the result that best represents the group’s overall wishes.

Let’s repeat the selection exercise again, this time taking into account preferences by allowing people to rank their preferences from 1 to 4 by writing on the ballot paper the rank they give to each preference.

Choice of place to eat

First preferences

KFC

4

McDonalds

3

Burger King

2

MOS Burger

1

 

We have now received the ballots. Let us now eliminate the choice that gets the least first preferences. Mos Burger is eliminated. When this happens, the one person who voted for Mos Burger will have his preferences distributed among the other choices; we add this to their score. Let’s say it turns out that person voted for McDonald’s as a second preference. We now have this:

Choice of place to eat

First preferences

Score

KFC

4

4

McDonalds

3

4

Burger King

2

2

 

Our next step is to again eliminate the choice with the lowest score. This turns out to be Burger King. Burger King is eliminated, and the people who voted for Burger King will have their other preferences distributed among the other remaining restaurants. Let’s say for example, that the 2 people who voted for Burger King had put McDonald’s as their second choice. We now get this:

 

Choice of place to eat

First preferences

Score

KFC

4

4

McDonalds

3

6

 

Finally, we once again eliminate the choice with the lowest score. We now have our winner – McDonald’s. Although it has fewer first preferences, it has the highest overall score based on the second preferences of the choices that were eliminated.

This simple method is only one way to carry out preferential voting. For simplicity’s sake, I have left out the use of quotas adopted by some systems (such as the Droop Quota and the Hare Quota), and have not considered preferences beyond second preferences. I have also avoided ‘fractional voting’, which allows votes to be split up into fractions, which provides a more representative score when third, fourth or fifth preferences are involved.

There are numerous vote-calculation formulas out there, each with its advantages and disadvantages – but the main point is the same: preferential voting ensures people’s preferences are considered in order to secure a more representative outcome than if we only took into account their top choices in a first past the post system.

Let’s quickly use a real-world example to demonstrate the power of preferential voting. Here are the results from the recent French elections:

french election results.PNG

Notice how much the gap between the centrist candidate Marcon and the far-right, anti-immigration candidate Le Pen widened once voters of other eliminated candidates had the chance to express their second preferences through a second round of voting. Imagine if Marcon and Le Pen’s first round performances were swapped, and Le Pen had won the first round by 24%. With the second round as a safeguard, Marcon would have still won, because an overwhelming number of people who supported other candidates supported him over Le Pen. However, had France adopted a first past the post system, Le Pen would have been President with 24% of the vote, even though clearly, across the country, a majority of people did not want Le Pen to win.

One might argue that this election system is too complicated. I disagree. I believe that Singaporeans are intelligent enough to move from “put a cross next to your preferred candidate”, to “rank the candidates according to your preference from 1 to 4”. If the issue concerns the calculation of votes being complicated, I argue that this is a matter for the Elections Department to handle. I am sure that our civil servants are intelligent enough to handle the count effectively, in spite of the math involved.

On the other hand, some people might question my motives behind proposing a system under which, they argue, Mr Tan Cheng Bock would have most likely won in 2011. I find this sort of argumentation regressive and naive. It is an unsophisticated ad hominem argument that fails to engage the issues at stake. I am trying to improve the fairness of the system, independent of the candidates that take part in it. Regardless of which party or candidate we support, surely we can agree that a fair and representative system is what Singapore needs. Any criticism of my views should be made with reference to the fairness and the representative strength of my proposed voting system, rather than which candidate would emerge victorious under that system. It is dishonest for anyone to argue that some system is better merely because their preferred candidate would win under it – it would be a shame if political discussion in our country is filled with these kinds of arguments.

In summary, we should reform the way we elect our President by getting rid of the “first past the post” system, and replacing it with a preferential voting system.

With all the talk about a reserved election for minority-only candidates, I believe that this is a reform that we should pay significant attention to. It will make elections fairer and more representative of the will of the people. It is therefore quite disappointing that this has eluded Parliament for so long, and that there is very little debate about it.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

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